Girls at the Lamwo Kuc Ki Gen High School, northern Uganda. Photograph courtesy of Peas
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The learning curve

In 2016, commercial-scale oil production will begin in Uganda. But with only a quarter of all its children in secondary school, how can more of the people – especially girls – benefit from its new wealth?

“John-Mary has always had dreams,” says Justine Nantengo of her son, who stands smart and shy in his crisp blue shirt on the dirt floor of their tiny mud-brick home. In this district, on the western edges of Kampala, where the urban sprawl gives way to green and where tarmacked roads dwindle to rutted, rust-red tracks, if you don’t have dreams you have nothing.

For a long time John-Mary dreamed of finishing secondary school, but the few local schools were too expensive for his single mother, supporting five children on a plantation worker’s salary. Then in 2008 Onwards and Upwards opened, a secondary school run by Peas – Promoting Equality in African Schools, a social enterprise and charity hybrid. School fees were only 52,000 Ugandan shillings (£12) a term, less than half the price of the average private school and USh19,000 (£5) lower than fees at the supposedly free government schools.

John-Mary, who was then 19, enrolled, graduated with the third-highest grades in the district and is now funding the cost of studying for a degree in education at Makerere University in Kampala by teaching at Onwards and Upwards. He hopes to teach full-time, to fund his younger siblings through school, perhaps, one day, rebuild the family’s decrepit home and allow his mother to retire.

Like many countries across Africa, Uganda has made considerable progress in increasing primary-school enrolment rates. Under the UN Millennium Development Goals introduced in 2000, national governments pledged to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Across sub-Saharan Africa, this led to an increase in net primary-school enrolment rates from 18 per cent in 1999 to 76 per cent in 2009.

The Ugandan government, led by Yoweri Museveni, introduced universal primary education in 1997, three years before the UN pledge. According to Ugandan government statistics, net enrolment rates rose from 57 per cent to 85 per cent in 1997 alone, and today just over 90 per cent of children are enrolled.

But this created a second problem, says Ismael Mulindwa, head of policy and regulations at the Ugandan ministry of education. “In the space of one or two years, the number of children in primary school shot up from about two million to seven million [Uganda has a population of 34.5 million]. When these children reached their final year of primary, another question came in: where do they go now?”

Uganda took an unusual step. In 2007, it became one of the first African countries to set a goal of universal secondary education, but the government accepted that it lacked the capacity to implement the programme directly. “At that point, we had around 800 government secondary schools, which could not take up that big number of school leavers. So we now thought of forging a partnership with private schools, to help absorb these numbers,” Mulindwa told me. The government encouraged private schools to step in by offering schools participating in the programme an annual grant of USh141,000 (£35) per pupil. In exchange for accepting the government subsidy, the participating schools agree not to charge tuition fees – but most schools get around this by imposing inflated top-up charges for lunch, uniforms and books instead.

The policy has yielded mixed results: enrolment has improved, but the quality of schooling is varied and often bad. Private providers can be costly and schools have been closed down suddenly when profits dried up. Large parts of the population are still not served by any secondary schools.

Peas, however, is pioneering a new model to provide access to affordable but high-quality secondary education in those areas where the demand is greatest. The capital and start-up costs for each Peas school are raised in the UK, but the organisation doesn’t want its schools to remain dependent on unsustainable foreign donations. A combination of the annual subsidy from the Ugandan government, low fees to cover lunch costs and an income-generating activity – often a farm attached to the school – aims to make every Peas school financially independent.

“Peas is run as a social enterprise,” says John Rendel, the organisation’s chief executive, “so the capital that people invest into the launch of each school sets up a business, which will not just support one child through school, but will support that child, then their brother, their sister, and so on, ad infinitum.”

There are now 13 Peas-run schools in Uganda as well as one pilot project in Zambia, and it is already one of the largest secondary school networks in Africa. It hopes to build 100 schools in Uganda by 2017, creating 100,000 low-cost secondary school places.

The task is huge. In Uganda only one in four children of secondary school age is in school. For a boy such as John-Mary, to miss out on secondary school is to be consigned to a life of poverty in a country where 38 per cent of the people live on less than $1.25 a day. For a girl, the consequences can be even worse.

Of Justine’s five children, only Mary hasn’t completed primary school – as a girl, she couldn’t contribute to her fees by making bricks. Mary Nantume married at 15. She now sits in one corner of the room with a polite but dazed smile and lets Justine and John-Mary speak for her. She has recently left her husband, returning home to live with Justine. Under Baganda custom, her husband will retain full custody of their children, aged three, five and seven.

“Men here are not easy,” John-Mary explains. “When you’re not educated, they treat marriage as employment and when you are a poor girl, they will mistreat you.”

Marriage is often one of the very few options open to an uneducated girl living in poverty. Because it is customary to receive a dowry, marrying a daughter early can be an attractive proposition for parents, too.

Around Kampala are several large, shiny billboards of a suited man punching a well-dressed woman, with the headline “Is this a fair fight?”. Domestic violence is common and even widely accepted in many Ugandan communities – and these posters are of little value if you can’t read. Nor is it easy, in any case, to leave an abusive relationship if you don’t have independent means. In many parts of Uganda, once a dowry has been exchanged, the husband will expect a “refund” should his wife leave. Whether the dowry was paid in money that has been spent, or on animals that have been reared and resold, this is seldom possible, leaving women trapped in unhappy marriages.

Education is not an instant cure to gender inequality, but the statistics for the benefits are unambiguous: an educated girl is seven times less likely to become HIV-positive, her children are twice as likely to live beyond the age of five and each year of secondary school can add between 15 and 25 per cent to her salary.

Onwards and Upwards has been especially successful in getting girls into school. Girls make up 56 per cent of pupils, and almost twothirds of them are boarders. “I had a parent here last week who had lots of children and has to choose which ones he will support through school this year,” the director of the Onwards and Upwards school, Moses Mwanje, told me.

“I asked him, ‘What criteria are you using?’ And he said he wanted to educate those that are most vulnerable first, so he chose his girls.”

Pregnant pause

Travel about 250 kilometres west of Kampala and you reach the trading village of Kigorobya. The whole village amounts to little more than a handful of wooden shacks and bare shops hugging close to the earth road, where children play in the dirt while their mothers do household chores. In this small and deprived outpost, Green Shoots, another Peas school, is faced with a very big problem.

Since it launched in 2010, 45 of the Green Shoots pupils have dropped out of school after falling pregnant. Six have since returned. Teen - age pregnancy rates in Kigorobya are exceptionally high, the result of a combination of poverty and a quirk of local marriage customs. “In most parts of Uganda, if a man gets a girl pregnant he will have to pay a bride price to her family,” says Christine Apiot, Peas’s senior director of education. “But around Kigorobya, there is no dowry system, so when a man here gets a girl pregnant, he doesn’t have to pay.”

Scovia Bamukuhda is one of only two girls in the final year at Green Shoots, and she believes that poverty has driven many of her peers to have children. “Maybe it is a problem of poverty, because they try to get some money. Now if they get money, they get the money through having sex,” she explains.

Stellah Kimuli, two years Scovia’s junior and quietly confident, says: “Another problem is maybe those husbands have money and will pay for them so they can go to school, and then they are getting pregnant.” It is hard to intervene because girls are often secretive about their sources of support. “You cannot know that there is someone who is paying for them,” Stellah says. “She just plays with you, socializes with you, but she doesn’t tell you. You only realize when the girl is already pregnant.”

Stellah was orphaned at nine, and now her uncle pays her boarding fees. She says she has resisted pressure to get married because she is “patient”. Although she is not sure if her uncle will pay for further studies, she wants to become a nurse, and believes the long-term benefits of education will outweigh the short-term benefits of marriage. “I am not even willing to get married. Because I can see I’m a poor girl and if I go and get married right now it’s not easy. It’s like this: as I still have a chance to be helped, let me make the most of that chance.”

To encourage more pupils to follow Scovia’s and Stellah’s lead, the school regularly invites successful women to speak to the girls, and it has arranged for them to receive free counselling and HIV tests at a local health clinic. It has launched an outreach campaign to convince parents to keep their girls in school. According to the headteacher, Simon Okwera, the outreach campaign has led to a fall in the number of girls dropping out because of pregnancy as well as an increase in the number of female boarders.

One of the community’s most vocal and longstanding advocates for girls’ education is Sarah Ntiro, Uganda’s first female university graduate, who was sponsored by the British government to study at Oxford from 1951-54. She was born in Hoima, a city a few kilometres away from Kigorobya, and still lives there today, in a neat concrete house on the edge of town.

“My mother went to school, I went to school, my children and nephews and nieces have gone to university, my grandchildren are graduates and there are people unable to read and write. In 2012. It’s shocking,” she says. “It isn’t that these people don’t see the value of education – they are not even aware that there’s a need. If they were aware they’d fear being left behind, and these people don’t want to be left behind.”

Hoima is poised on the edge of change. In 2016, commercial production is due to start at Uganda’s first oilfield, in the nearby Albertine Rift basin. There are hints of how oil money might transform the region: there’s an incongruous, shopping-mall-shaped hole in Hoima’s clapped-out downtown and, closer to Lake Albert, the occasional oil company compound stands out amid the mud-and-thatch huts. Samuel Nyendwoha, who farms tobacco here and leads the Green Shoots parent-teacher association, says local people grumble that oil companies are bringing in workers from Kampala and further afield. Uneducated locals can at best hope for casual manual labour.

In this sense, Hoima provides an example of a process that is repeating itself across Uganda, and indeed Africa. Foreign investment on the continent may be one route to more rapid economic growth, but although this will enrich a small, educated elite, the swaths of the population that lack the skills to participate in foreigninvestment- driven business will experience little improvement in their wages or standard of living. If, or when, foreign investment transforms Uganda, the uneducated will, in Sarah Ntiro’s words, be “left behind”.

Uganda cannot attain sustainable and inclusive growth if only a quarter of its children enroll in secondary school. “Education is our only foundation, our only future,” Justine Nantengo says. She could be talking about much more than her family of six and their battered mudbrick home on the fringes of Kampala.

Peas’s “Back to School” appeal aims to change the lives of over 16,000 children in Uganda by ensuring that they have a quality secondary school education over the next three years. Until 13 December, the British government will match all public donations to “Back to School” pound for pound. More details at: peas.org.uk

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times